The competitive action bell is about to ring. After a tour that spanned multiple continents, gave varied results, and many memorable moments, Manchester United end their pre-season in Ireland’s Aviva Stadium against La Liga side Athletic Bilbao on August 6, 4 PM BST.
Plenty of things have been learned during the pre-season tour so far and this game should be no different.
As the last game, there is plenty to talk about, learn, and watch out for as Erik ten Hag seeks to put his best and freshest side up for the competitive action.
Here are the top three things to watch out for as the club finishes its preparations-
1- Crunch audition fixture
Unsurprisingly, Ten Hag opted to play arguably his strongest team in the game against RC Lens. Old Trafford was treated to a great performance and the lack of substitutions suggests that it was the lineup which will start against Wolves on August 14.
However, that means that the game against Athletic Bilbao just became a scrap for the fringe players to prove themselves.
With just 24 hours between games, it is almost certain that no player who started against Lens will start against Bilbao.
That leaves the fringe players to fight it out as some seek to put themselves in the shopping window, while some try to force their way back into the first-team fixture. This brings us to the second point…
2- The last dance
With the next game in the Premier League after eight days, and teams generally preferring to have their squads in place by the time competitive action begins, it could be the last appearance for the club for a number of players.
Players like Fred, Donny van de Beek, Brandon Williams, and even Scott McTominay have been the subject of interest from many teams and look likely to leave, some more than others.
Therefore, it could be the last dance for these players, as Ten Hag is unlikely to play a completely youthful XI as he did against Wrexham. Fringe players will certainly play a part and with doubts over their future, the Irish Red Devils will have the unique opportunity to say goodbye to these players.
3- A fond reunion
Fans of Manchester United will recognise one name immediately when Athletic Bilbao’s teamsheet drops. Fan-favourite Ander Herrera has moved back home to Bilbao after three lucrative years with Paris Saint-Germain.
Herrera has a special place in United fans’ hearts for his selfless game and his tendency to play with his heart on his sleeve. He was a great servant for the club and his exit from the club was regarded as questionable at the time.
He went on to play a big part in PSG’s run to the Champions League final a year later but fell down the pecking order as Ligue 1 champions strengthened regularly.
The 33-year-old midfielder is now back to where it all began as Bilbao signed him permanently on a free transfer after his loan spell at the Basque club was successful.
There aren’t many players still at the club from Herrera’s time as United have also undergone a huge rebuild. However, for those who are, a fond reunion is on the cards.
4- Search for Anthony Martial
It has now been a week since Ten Hag waxed lyrical about Anthony Martial’s importance to the club as he neared a return from injury. Since then, United have played two games, with the Frenchman nowhere to be seen.
It is understandable that the club is being cautious with a player who is now infamous for his injury-proneness. However, with the season starting soon, United face the nightmare-ish prospect of starting without a natural striker. Rasmus Hojlund has also arrived injured and if Martial doesn’t play a part against Bilbao, things look bleak at the No 9 position.
It is a crunch season for the Frenchman as well, with his contract expiring next year. The game against Bilbao is arguably more important for Martial than anybody else.
5- The La Liga curse
There has been doubt among fans about the reasoning behind scheduling this game back-to-back with Lens. This was amplified when the manager picked his strongest XI against the French side.
However, this game will likely be a tactical lab for Ten Hag to test the side and himself against a tricky La Liga opposition.
The Dutch maestro had a great first season, even brushing aside FC Barcelona and Real Betis. However, ultimately, he fell prey to the same La Liga curse that plagued earlier United managers when the team capitulated against Sevilla.
La Liga teams present a unique challenge due to their smart game-management skills combined with technical superiority. It was on display in the loss against Real Madrid, and Bilbao will also present a great tactical challenge for Ten Hag and his men.